05/11/2009 11:00PM

Panel lets Churchill trim dates

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved a request by Churchill Downs to drop seven live race dates from its ongoing spring meet, the third time in the past month that the commission has acceded to a track's request to run fewer races.

The vote will allow Churchill Downs to cancel all of its scheduled Wednesday cards for the remainder of the meet, through July 1. In addition, Churchill will cancel its live card for Thursday, May 28. Churchill also received approval to cut $425,000 from its stakes schedule.

The approval comes in the midst of an all-out push by Kentucky racing interests to get slot-machine legislation passed during a yet-to-be-scheduled special session this summer. Earlier this year, a bill that would have legalized slot machines at Kentucky's tracks failed to win approval, but state budget revenues have continued to deteriorate and lawmakers are considering a special session to address the shortfall. In the meantime, Kentucky racing interests have turned up the volume on a long-running campaign to publicize the "competitive disadvantage" of racetracks that do not receive subsidies from slot machines.

Kevin Flannery, Churchill's director of corporate communications, told commissioners during a presentation at the Tuesday meeting that handle at the track has dropped 20opercent when not counting wagers made on the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby cards.

"We're dealing with a competitive reality, and that competitive reality is that there are haves and have-nots," Flannery said, referring to racetracks with slot machines in states such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Indiana.

Rick Hiles, the president of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said his organization supported the request to drop the seven live race days.

"The final solution came down to that we either have to cut days, or we have to cut purses by 20 percent," Hiles said. "We looked at the numbers and the scenarios, and we didn't want to have to cut purses at this time."

Last month, the commission approved a request by Ellis Park to trim its upcoming meet by 25 race days, to 23, and approved a request by Kentucky Downs to cut its race meet in September from six days to four. Owners of both tracks contended that they would have difficulty filling races because of competition from tracks with slot machines.

Many racetracks across the country are suffering double-digit declines in handle due to drastic cutbacks in discretionary spending by consumers. Locally, Churchill's race cards have also been affected by nearly two weeks of rain and overcast skies that forced the cancellations of turf races and a glut of scratches until the weather cleared up on Saturday. The track canceled four races last week because of a lack of entries.

Jim Gates, the general manager of Churchill, said after the meeting that the weather and recession were factors in the downturns in the track's business. However, Gates said that the decline in field size has so far had the most impact on their handle, because bettors in out-of-state simulcast sites are shopping for larger fields when picking which races to bet.

Tom Ludt, a racing commissioner who is also the general manager of the breeding and racing operation Vinery, voted to approve the request with the other commissioners after expressing reservations about the commission approving another cut in live race days. After the meeting, after television news crews had packed up their equipment, he said: "In my opinion, this is all a sales pitch to get gaming. That's just me speaking."

* Also at the meeting, the commissioners voted to uphold a hearing officer's recommendation to suspend Dr. Rod Stewart for five years for violations surrounding the discovery of cobra venom in the veterinarian's gear after a search at the Keeneland barns of trainer Patrick Biancone in June 2007.